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Should Students Evaluate Their Teachers?

It's not often that my column elicits as many interesting comments as "A Fairer Way to Evaluate Teachers." Perhaps this is because final report cards have been handed out, but it also may be because the subject by its very nature is controversial.

In either case, I'd like to expand upon an excellent suggestion that one reader made. Why not include ratings made by students? After all, they observe what takes place in the classroom on a daily basis. Unlike the dog-and-pony shows sometimes put on when teachers know they will be observed, this continuity is indispensable to obtaining a comprehensive picture.

I agree. Yet I hasten to add a few caveats. Students don't always possess the ability to distinguish between good and bad teachers. Sometimes they use the opportunity to get even with a teacher they don't personally like for one reason or another. And sometimes they seek to punish the teacher because the grade they received was not what they believed they deserved.

Nevertheless, I believe that such ratings will be seen as aberrations and discounted accordingly. In support of this view, a two-year study of student evaluations of teachers funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation found that "student perceptions are reliable, informative and predictive of teacher effectiveness" ("Students can help with teacher evaluations, Gates study says," St. Petersburg Times, Dec. 10, 2010).

There is, however, another factor that warrants further attention. I've made it a practice to attend the class reunions of the same high school in the Los Angeles Unified School District where I spent my entire 28-year career. I often heard comments from students that they didn't appreciate a particular teacher until many years after they graduated. They attributed their change to maturity. By that time, however, it was too late.

To increase the likelihood that evaluations of teachers are fair, it's important to include input from multiple sources: colleagues, students, parents and administrators. In addition, the rubric that is eventually designed for evaluation needs to be a joint product. In that way, no one stakeholder will be able to dominate the process. Finally, evaluations need to be anonymous in order to protect the identity of the students. Surprisingly, none of these considerations are included in Erik A. Hanushek's essay that was published in the Summer 2011 issue of Education Next ("Valuing Teachers").

No system of teacher evaluation is perfect. But we can certainly do a better job than what now exists.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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